Too Much ‘Happy Talk’ at Work Can Lead to Bad Decisions

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Photo: DeBrocke/Corbis

It’s okay to skip the “happy talk” at work, says Cass Sunstein, the Harvard professor, best-selling author, and behavioral economics guru, who is making the rounds this week promoting his newest book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Happy talk, as Sunstein explained yesterday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, is when everyone in an organization speaks as if everything is going swimmingly and nothing, nothing at all, needs improvement.

As he said on the show, “A big problem is often groups have people who silence themselves, who don’t say what they know, who want to please the leader rather than inform the leader. So they tend to say happy things – they don’t want to promote anxiety or increase the burden on the leader’s shoulders.” It’s done with the best of intentions, but, as he writes in his book, focusing on the bright side “is a pervasive source of group failures,” for obvious reasons: If no one is pointing out the negative, there’s not much chance for improvement. In a way, it’s a reminder that it’s the negative people who tend to get things right.